Analysis: How Tyler Buchner, a leader in training, is growing into the role of Notre Dame quarterback
SOUTH BEND – If this were just about current leadership skills and the most compelling narrative, Drew Pyne would be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
He’s the one with the glint in his eye, the catch in his throat and the Hollywood soundtrack practically wafting alongside his every public utterance.
He’s the one who grew up pretending he was Rudy, the one lighting candles at the Grotto, the one with Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV in his corner, the one who literally left droplets of his own blood and sweat on the interview table on Day 2 of preseason camp.
If passion and desire and earnestness were the only data points in this program-altering decision, Pyne would’ve been a fine choice as the leader of the Irish offense.
Talent, however, matters even more at this level of college football.
That’s why Tyler Buchner was the right call.
Not surprisingly, Pyne was crushed when coach Marcus Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees delivered the news Friday night in a meeting with all four quarterbacks. The hope, the expectation, is that Pyne, a redshirt sophomore, will recover emotionally, ignore the transfer portal and stay prepared should his number be called.
“There’s not 15 guys in this program that are more important to Notre Dame than Drew Pyne,” Rees said. “I don’t know when, how, why, where, but this program is going to need him moving forward. This program needs Drew Pyne.”
It needs Buchner even more right now. The sophomore from San Diego is the one with the jaw-dropping physical ability, the dual-threat skills and the untapped inner swagger to keep Notre Dame among the sport’s elite.
'Whether you like it or not'
Remember when Buchner, his sprained right ankle in a walking boot, wore a T-shirt with “STUD” across the front as he hobbled into the indoor facility two days before the Blue-Gold Game? With a football in his hands, Buchner can back that up.
Now it’s about growing into the rest of the job description.
“There is a lot that goes into it,” Buchner said as camp opened. “There are other jobs of a quarterback than just, ‘Throw the ball to an open guy.’ You’re sort of placed into a position as a leader whether you like it or not, and it’s all about owning that role.”
In 1840, two years before Notre Dame founder Father Edward Sorin reached South Bend, the Great Man Theory was all the rage. It held that throughout history all great leaders are born, not made, and that was generally accepted in behavioral science for nearly a full century.
Over time, however, researchers came to believe it couldn’t possibly be that simple. Other theories were formulated and given fancy names. There was talk of traits and contingencies and situations and transactions and transformations.
The past two decades alone have given rise to a sea of new leadership theories and methods: shared, collaborative, collective, servant, inclusive and so on.
Consider Buchner, like most 19-year-olds, a work in progress when it comes to leadership. The key, it seems, is that he is growing more comfortable by the day with the concept.
“You’ve got to learn to be a leader,” he said, “and fit certain situations and become friends with the guys in order to lead.”
Leading from behind
From the moment Rees challenged him in an exit meeting in late April, Buchner has leaned even harder into the idea of personal leadership development. Summer conversations and conditioning exercises with Matt Balis, so much more than just the director of football performance, helped expedite that process for Buchner.
So did growing closer, not more distant, with Pyne. Rather than let resentment take over, Buchner watched and listened and learned from Pyne’s effortless example of interpersonal skills.
“I would say Drew has taken more strides in leadership than I have,” Buchner said as camp opened. “He’s been here another year than I have, and Drew has a really good presence in a lot of these things.”
That gap doesn’t disappear just because Buchner is now the nominative starter. Yet, the mere fact Buchner has become so open about discussing his leadership progression bodes well for his future and the ultimate outcome of Saturday’s announcement.
Without using the term “leading from behind,” Buchner sounded ready on Saturday to do just that.
“Leadership doesn’t always have to be about, ‘Hey, you go do this, you go do this.’ “ Buchner said. “Me and (senior guard Jarrett Patterson) are good friends. I think a good way of being a leader with JP is continuing to stay close with him, help out with the O-line whenever I can.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean conducting late-night food runs for the three-bills set, but then again, sometimes it might. Ian Book, on his way to becoming the winningest quarterback in program history, organized weekly outings with his offensive linemen to a wings joint in Niles, Mich.
Is that why Book finished his career 30-5 as Notre Dame’s starter? Maybe not, but it sure didn’t hurt.
“If they need something, I’ve got to do it, you know what I’m saying?” Buchner said of his teammates. “It’s just communication. Let them know my opinion on certain things, and we can talk it through and just continue to be vocal and have a good set of communication with those guys.”
Robert K. Greenleaf, who popularized the notion of “servant leadership” half a century ago, couldn’t have said it any better.
Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.